NEW LONDON -- On the 96th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote, and 40 years after military service academies were first opened to women, one of the first women to graduate from the Coast Guard Academy told a room filled with mostly female cadets: "It's your Coast Guard now. Speak up."
Retired Coast Guard Capt. Joanne McCaffrey was asked to speak at a Women's Equality Day luncheon held at the academy Friday because of her role in initiating the service's Care of Newborn Children program in 1991, which expanded to today's Temporary Separation Program.
The program allows service members to temporarily leave the Coast Guard for up to two years to pursue growth or other opportunities and then return to active duty.
Feeling "tremendously guilty" that she was the only mom in the Cleveland neighborhood where she lived leaving for work in the morning and that she left the office each day "with all of the lieutenants still there," she wrote a letter asking if she could leave active duty for "a while" with the promise of returning later.
She was also in graduate school at the time and the precedent for someone with that obligation to leave the service was "nonexistent." There was also no way that the service could force her to return.
Her request was denied.
Her commanding officer at the time delivered the bad news, but told her she could work from home, rendering her the Coast Guard's first telecommuter, she said.
She worked from home one day a week, which gave her the opportunity to spend time with her kids and volunteer at their school.
Her request subsequently spurred the Care of Newborn Children program, which, she said, officials were initially wary about because "who knew how many people would ask to take it?"
It wasn't the first time in her 25 plus years with the Coast Guard that she wrote a letter to instigate change within the service.
When McCaffrey arrived at the academy on June 28, 1976, she was one of 38 women in the class, 14 of whom graduated.
The women had to navigate an environment that had been tailored to men.
When they arrived on campus, the academy still was renovating the bathrooms in the cadet living quarters to accommodate women, and women were not allowed to serve on Coast Guard cutters.
They had to get waivers to go on the barque Eagle, the academy's training vessel.
Among her requests for changes, McCaffrey asked that the academy replace the stripes on women's white dress uniforms with shoulder boards. It's tradition for cadets at graduation to throw their shoulder boards in the air at the end of the ceremony.
Today, the academy's Class of 2020 features the largest percentage of women ever: 37 percent.
That's a higher percentage than the incoming classes at the other service academies.
Women make up 29 percent of the Class of 2020 at the Air Force Academy; about 27 percent at the Naval Academy; nearly 22 percent at the U.S. Military Academy; and 20 percent at the Merchant Marine Academy.
As far as actual number of women in the class, Coast Guard Academy, the smallest of the service academies, ranks third with 112 women. The Merchant Marine Academy has the least amount at 56.
Second-class cadet Gillian Gerton, a member of the class of 2018, said her experience at the Coast Guard Academy is no different than that of her male classmates.
Gerton, whose parents are West Point graduates, applied to the academy because of its small size and its humanitarian missions.
Her mom was among the first women to graduate from West Point.
She plays sports and says that's a way for women to show they are just as capable as their male counterparts.
"I can play basketball as good as the rest of them," she said.
(c)2016 The Day (New London, Conn.)